One undebatable truth is that music sounds better in a car. (No, it really does.) Saweetie must know this, too, because she summons me to her ride for the night to preview tracks from her new EP Icy before dinner. “Can we circle the block a few times?” she asks the driver.
New York City’s Flatiron District is still bustling after sunset, matching the infectious energy coming out of the speakers of the Suburban. The driver is even bobbing his head. The Bay Area rapper plays me three songs, and it’s clear the subdued demeanour she demonstrated on High Maintenance, her debut EP, is gone.
Saweetie leaves little to the imagination on “My Type,” professing her dating preferences at the start of the song: “Rich nigga, 8 figure, that’s my type.” Lead single “Emotional” is a hybrid of the G-Funk roots of her Bay area upbringing and the horns of Beyonce and JAY-Z’s “Crazy in Love,” while the bombastic banger “Tip Toes” sports the hi-hats of 80s hip-hop. Two of the songs are collaborations with Quavo, the Atlanta rapper with whom Saweetie has been romantically linked since appearing in his “WORKIN ME” video last August.
Her splashy 2018 single, “ICY GRL,” was the 25-year-old’s entry point into rap, and like a game of double dutch, High Maintenance found Saweetie looking for the right time to enter its ropes. On Icy, Saweetie makes a case for how to adapt once you’ve made it in.
Rather than recreating the nostalgia of the millennium’s bling era that propelled her first single, Icy sees Saweetie defining who an icy girl is and what she sounds like. Judging from our conversation, the Bay area rapper approaches her new material like a quiz before a test, with each piece of work a form of preparation for what comes next—in this case, a debut album she’s readying for release. “I feel like an EP is for practice and an album is the game,” she tells me. Saweetie may not have all of the answers yet, but with its grit and raunch, Icy is proof that she’s having fun while she learns.
Saweetie is glistening in the dimly lit interior of Jue Lan Club, a Chinese restaurant on West 20th Street, the stones in her oversized hoop earrings catching the flickering candlelight. She lets out an exaggerated cry as a spread of her favourite appetisers arrives before she can even glance at the menu: oysters, chicken satay, and rock shrimp. It’s been the type of long day that calls for comfort food, and she has a team who anticipates her needs before she vocalises them. This is Saweetie’s life now. Over dinner with her team at her label Warner Bros., we talk a lot about her guilty pleasures, like Netflix (she wants more answers from Bird Box, like the rest of us) and the drink concoctions she leans on when she wants to have a “Super Bad night.” Patron and champagne, anyone?
Saweetie is only one year removed from her life before fame, but she reminisces on those days like a distant memory. “I enjoy the life I have now, but I also enjoy doing regular stuff,” she says. “I can’t pull up to the club and stay outside no more. I can’t be at anybody’s table. A picture or video can go viral, and it can be misinterpreted. If the public doesn’t receive what you say, people can start to build your brand for you.”
Born Diamonte Harper, Saweetie began building her brand as the official icy girl after her modern spin on Khia’s 2002 hit “My Neck, My Back” went viral in 2017. She followed the track with High Maintenance, a nine-track EP that forced her to evolve beyond the car raps she’d been posting on Instagram for fun. High Maintenance, which includes original songs with producers like CashMoneyAP and Zaytoven, was the first time she’d deviated from rapping over instrumentals from the early aughts.
“I love ‘ICY GRL’ and the fact that people were so receptive to it, but because it got so much notoriety, people were already comparing me to people who had been in the game for five or 10 years,” she says, referencing some of the criticism she’s received since her ascent. “‘ICY GRL’ took off, and my label wanted to put out a project. I’m like, ‘OK, cool,’ not knowing it was going to be as serious as it was. I love High Maintenance. But since that’s been out, people have been continuing to say the same things about me.”
Saweetie’s cohorts are City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion, and Tierra Whack – artists who are dismantling the misogynoir-fuelled notion there can be only one queen of rap at a time. Saweetie remained diplomatic when skeptics like Hot 97’s Ebro Darden questioned her skills, but in the interim between the two EPs, she began speaking out. “Saweetie so monotone / Saweetie look like so and so,” she raps on “Pissed,” which she released with a Game of Thrones-inspired music video last December. She was sending a message that she could be in the running for the throne too.
“It was me responding to [the critics] and not through an impulsive comment,” she says.
Saweetie is cognisant that the fast pace of the internet shrinks artist development, obliging her to learn the ropes in real time. Still, she assures me she’s using everything she attaches her name to as a learning experience. “YUSO,” a Kid Ink song she appeared on with Lil Wayne last month, finds Saweetie trying her hand at a seductress role, opening her verse with “I got 69 problems and cumming is not one,” a stark contrast from the thinly veiled euphemisms found on High Maintenance like “I’ma pull up with that good good.” When I mention that she’s straight up nasty on the song’s verse, she blushes. “I was?”
“Some people were a little taken aback by it, and said it wasn’t me,” she says. “What I don’t like is when people feel like they can box an artist into who they think an artist should be. As a woman – whether its once in a blue moon, or from time to time – if I want to express my sexuality, I have every right to do so.” The EP’s most endearing quality is that Saweetie wants you to feel as sexy as she does – whether that means dancing in your mirror, as she does on Instagram, or rapping along at one of her shows.
“I noticed that besides “ICY GRL” and “High Maintenance,” my shows would lose momentum – not in terms of the audience being interested, but as far as the audience being engaged,” she says, pointing to High Maintenance’s slow tempos. “I wanted songs that would sound good not only offstage but onstage.”
Saweetie is her own hype woman on “My Type,” an interpolation of Petey Pablo’s “Freek-a-Leek” where she litters energetic adlibs across its bass-laden beat. “I like Leos ‘cause they’re meaner when it come out they mouth / Got an Aries that take care of me when I’m in the South / I like Virgos ‘cause they’re loyal and they always is down / But my favourite sign is the one before the amount,” she raps, faster than we’ve heard her before. With closer “1-of-1,” however, she retreats to a more leisurely pace, denouncing the pettiness of rap rivalries. “I’m the one of one – I don’t see no competition,” she says on the song’s hook. It’s a sentiment she mentions to me at Jue Lan Club, specifically when it comes to her working relationship with Quavo, the only other rapper that features on Icy.
The two songs he appears on, “Emotional” and “Tip Toes,” make for some of Icy’s most memorable moments; the pair playfully spar with each other, exchanging innuendoes that might make you blush. But according to Saweetie, her decision to feature Quavo twice came with reservations; “Tip Toes” almost didn’t make the EP. “At the end of the day, I shouldn’t let two features from one person stop me from putting out good music,” she says.
As a fan of Quavo and Saweetie, I wondered how they had fared in a studio together. “I wouldn’t say we’re competitive, because that means we’re on different teams,” she says. “But girl… He’s a drill sergeant.” Then, mid-laugh, she lets me in on a little secret. “When I was growing up, I had a speech problem. Sometimes when I record, it comes back, and it’s hard to pronounce certain words. If it’s too many takes, he’s like, ‘Come on girl. What’s up? We gotta keep going.’” Given her insecurities about her speech impediment in the past, she sometimes seems genuinely surprised she’s now earning a living as a rapper. “A lot of people who knew me as a kid are always like, ‘Wow, you used to have a speech problem, but now you’re rapping. Words coming out your mouth is your career.’ It’s very ironic.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a patron who recognises Saweetie despite the dark setting of the restaurant lighting. “I just wanted to let you know you’re one of my favourite artists,” she tells Saweetie.
As the fan walks away, Saweetie flashes a smile to her team. “Oooh, girl. She recognised me in the dark,” This life is still new to her, but she seems to be getting used to it.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.